Obama / Putin / Assad: Act II

Back in 2012 Vladimir Putin pulled Barack Obama’s chestnuts out of the fire in Syria by orchestrating a partial turnover of Syria’s chemical weapons to the UN after Obama had declared a “red line” if they were used, Assad’s troops deployed chlorine and sarin gas anyway, and Obama was unwilling or unable to respond. Russia’s current call for direct US-Russian military talks on Syria represent a Second Act in the play with Putin offering a way out for a cornered Obama.

In humanitarian terms, it is none too soon. Since the civil war began in 2011, some 200,000 Syrians have been killed; out of a pre-war population of 23 million, there are now some 1.9 million living in Turkey,  1.1 million in Lebanon, 630,000 in Jordan, 130,000 in Egypt, 250,000 in Iraq, 200,000 in Saudi Arabia, and 100,000 in the Gulf States as well as 7.6 million internally displaced in Syria. Billions of dollars of regional and global humanitarian aid have been spent despite the sharp decline in the region’s oil revenues. Nearly half of the million soul immigrant wave overwhelming Europe originates in Syria. Many of the moderates have left or been killed.

In June, President Obama admitted to not having a strategy to defeat ISIS, whose ranks are growing despite a year long aerial campaign. Since Obama encouraged the rebellion by declaring “Assad must go” in 2011 and subsequently rejected the proposal of his military advisers to arm the Free Syrian Army, ISIS has established their caliphate capital in northern Syria and the militant Islamists (the al Queda-aligned al Nusra Front as well as ISIS) have emerged as the primary force opposing the Assad regime.  This week the top US commander in the region admitted that the plan to train a secular military force was a complete failure.

Unlike the US, the Russians have a plan – and they are implementing it. With the cooperation of Iran and Iraq, they have fortified an air base in the territory of Assad’s core Alawite supporters, and are bringing in infantry, armor, artillery, and attack helicopters. The Russian naval supply and maintenance facility at Tartus will be protected. If Damascus falls, Assad’s supporters will have a safe-haven. Russian influence in the Middle East will be at its greatest in decades.

The offer to Obama from Putin? No more US support for the overthrow of Assad. Free reign for the US to assemble a coalition to attack ISIS. Military coordination to ensure that Russian and American aircraft and other forces do not inadvertently attack each other. Tacit acknowledgement that the US strategy of replacing tyrants with chaos did not work in Iraq or Libya, and should not be pursued in Syria.

Sounds like a plan. The Sunni Saudi’s and the Turks won’t like accommodation with the Shia Alawites and their Shia Iranian and Hezbollah supporters. But, by now – particularly after the Iranian nuclear negotiations – our allies know what they can expect from the Obama administration. In any case, the Saudi priority is the existential threat from ISIS and the Turkish priority is keeping the Kurds in check.

Elections have consequences. American elections have global consequences.


This week’s video is my selection for the best by-play in the September 16 presidential debate.


bill bowen – 9/18/15

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